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Heinen contract is unfortunate for him, good for Penguins

The Pens get a badly needed boost to the bottom six, courtesy of a soft market for mid-level (but good!) players in the form of Danton Heinen’s return

Pittsburgh Penguins v Boston Bruins Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

The Penguins got the perfect part yesterday to boost their bottom six, with the return to Pittsburgh by Danton Heinen. Despite having a really nice season that saw him score 18 goals, the open market wasn’t very welcoming to Heinen, resulting in a $1.0 million deal for one season.

The NHL’s salary cap has barely increased for three years now, but teams haven’t slowed at dishing out lengthy contracts to other players. As a result, there’s not a lot of extra space around for players at the level of Heinen (or Evan Rodrigues) to make a decent pay day as a free agent. It’s very difficult for teams to move contracts or clear space, especially when so many have the same goal in mind.

As a result of these market forces, Heinen is back in Pittsburgh for another year. And despite his legitimately solid season last year, he actually had to take a pay cut from what he made last season to do so.

That’s unfortunate and seems unjust from the player’s perspective, but it will be the Penguins’ gain to have a useful piece back for next year. Despite not really having a reputation of being a good defensive player, Heinen helped to drive excellent defensive results for the Pens when on the ice last season to go along with the noticeable goal scoring.

That’s a big deal, since many of Pittsburgh’s other bottom-six forwards, namely Jeff Carter and Kasperi Kapanen, did not do well in that regard last year. Adding Heinen to a potential third line with them makes the Pens a lot more well-rounded. It also kicks Brock McGinn down to the fourth line with Teddy Blueger and either Ryan Poehling or Josh Archibald in a deeper and better look for the club now.

Unless your name is Drew O’Connor or Radim Zohorna, there’s a lot to like about the Pens getting to pick Heinen back up for cheap.

Speaking of Kapanen, after seeing this market the handling of his situation by the Pens looks as bungled as ever.

It’s clear that the team did not want to lose Kapanen, so they gave him a qualifying offer to assure they would have him under contract next season. But that assurance came at a great price, it gave Kapanen the leverage to opt for arbitration.

Unlike the unrestricted free agent market these days, the nature of salary arbitration makes for the final frontier for middle-level younger NHL players to artificially boost their pay days to levels above contribution. Kapanen (11 goals, 32 points last season) got the Pens to avoid arbitration and settle for a contract to pay him $3.2 million for two years. Up in Toronto, Pierre Engvall (15 goals, 35 points last year) got a $2.25 million agreement for one year. Out in Edmonton, make it $3.0 for one year for Jesse Puljujarvi to avoid an arbitration hearing (16G, 35 point season).

Compare those situations to Heinen (unqualified, $1.0 million for one year coming off a 18 goal, 33 point season) or Ryan Donato (unqualified, had to crawl back to Seattle for a $1.2 million, one year deal after a 16G, 31 point year) and the results are clear. Others like Sonny Milano, Daniel Sprong and Sam Steel were in the NHL last season, went unqualified and still sit as free agents two weeks later.

As illustrated very clearly over the last two weeks — giving a qualifying offer makes for costly business to the teams. Not getting qualified is a costly one for the players.

The Pens brass might be fine with how everything shook out, since that IS what it took to guarantee they would keep Kapanen. But it’s also fair to say that decision also allocated millions of extra dollars by playing it the way they played it.

Given the inconsistent and up and down nature of Kapanen’s career, it remains to be seen if holding him in such high regard and be willing to shell out such high a price will truly have been a necessary move or good idea. Especially when there are players like Heinen, Donato, Milano and ol’ Evan Rodrigues out there who have no choice but to work for a lot cheaper.

In the end, the Penguins are better off for bringing Heinen back. It’s unfortunate for him that the market wasn’t very receptive to his good season. But that should be Pittsburgh’s gain for the second year in a row to have Heinen on a very team-friendly deal.